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September 2014

Remembering Alastair Reid

Neruda's writing space in Chile, from ''Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence'' by Alastair ReidNeruda's writing space in Chile, from Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence by Alastair Reid.

The Scottish-born writer Alastair Reid has died. He was best known as a poet and essayist, as the secretary to Robert Graves, and as the English translator and good chum of Borges and Neruda...but he also wrote magical, Yeats-like children's poems, of which the poem below is one. (He allowed me to print it many years ago in one of my first anthologies.)

I knew him in my early years in New York...and despite the enormous divide in age and experience (I was a callow young editor of paperback fantasy books; he had an office at The New Yorker), he was unfailingly kind, warm, and funny...and for some reason liked to sit with me and Beth Meacham in our tiny Ace Books offices (when he had far, far better places to be) and tell story after story so funny that we'd be literally crying with laughter. I haven't seen him in years, but I'll never forget him.

Alastair lived a remarkably full life, died at 88, and left the world with treasures...what artist can ask for more? To read some of his fine poems and essays for The New Yorker, go here.

"Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all."  - Alastair Reid

A Spell for Sleeping by Alastair Reid, published in Elsewhere Volume I, Arnold & Windling, eds, 1981

Reading in the woods

Morning coffee 1

The book I'm currently taking to my favorite spots for morning coffee in the woods and on the hill is Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maquire. Published in 1987, I picked it up in a used bookstore in Tucson many years ago, but somehow never got around to reading it fully until now. The collection is compiled from talks presented at the Simons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature in Boston...yet is full of ideas that also apply to other forms of writing, story-telling, and art.

"Writing is a journey," says Jane Yolen (in her contribution to the volume), "a journey on which the author goes hand in hand with her characters. If everything is written down in the author's mind before the journey is started, then (in the words of Truman Capote) you are not a writer but a typist. You have to be open to wonder as you go along, wonder and discovery, uncovery, and recovery. Discovery: the act of coming upon something that is unexpected. Uncovery: finding out all you can about your discovery. Recovery: using your discovery to tell more about character, setting, plot, and ultimately theme.

Morning coffee 2

"It is theme -- that elusive word that literature teachers mangle (sending elementary school children home with the instructions to find the 'author's intent' and high school students to discover 'thematic underpinnings' of a book) -- that I want to deal with now. The theme of every quest story, every hero story, is -- in Joseph Campbell's words, 'fundamentally...inward.' The hero seeks himself, seeks to mature, so that when he comes into his powers, he uses them for others, not himself.

"That is why the story of Jason is a quest but not a hero tale, for vainglorious, selfish, egotistical Jason wants all the honors and does not share. He is the earliest antihero. The heroes we pattern our children's books upon are most often the unlikely hero, the youngest son in the fairy tale, who goes forth like Tolkien's Frodo, although he does not know the way. It is Arthur pulling the sword for his foster brother Kay. And Taran discovering that he really does not know his name. And Morgan unriddling for the sake of the riddles themselves, not because he wants a kingdom. And, I hope, Jakkin, who tries to save the dragons of Austar and in doing so discovers and saves himself.

Morning coffee 3

"But to ask someone to offer the author's intent (friendship, loving-kindness, do no cry over spilt milk) and grade it as the correct answer is to overlook the simple fact that each reader reads a different book. The book is created between the author and the reader, re-created at each reading. William Black wrote, 'A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.' Which is not to say that the tree the wise man sees is the correct one. Only what he sees. And again Blake, 'The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion, the horse how he shall take his prey.' When we discuss books, we are all like the blind men and elephant, each describing a different thing, a different part, that which we hold in our hands. "


Innocence & Experience

Morning coffee 4

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Emily Smith

This morning, traditional music from singer/pianist/accordion player Emily Smith, who comes from Dumfries and Galloway in the south-west of Scotland. She has five solo albums,  plus a collaboration with her husband, multi-instrumentalist Jamie McClennan (Adoon Winding Nith, 2009), and a compilation album (Ten Years, 2013). Her latest (Echoes, 2014) mixes musical influences from Scotland and Nashville with the aid of trans-Atlantic musicians including Jerry Douglas, Aoife O'Donovan, and Kris Drever. All of her work is terrific.

Above: " Sweet Lover of Mine" (Child Ballad 1), performed at the Cambridge Folk Festival. It's on Smith's fifth album, Traiveller's Joy.

Below: "May Colven" (Child Ballad 4), recorded for her third  album, Too Long Away. (That's McClennan on fiddle.)

Above: The new video for "My Darling Boy" (a variant of the ballad "The Trees They Grow So High"), from Echoes.

Below, a contemporary song this time: "Somewhere Along the Road," written by Steeleye Span's Rick Kemp. Smith recorded this one for Traiveller’s Joy, her album of Scottish traveller ballads and songs from the road.

Creativity and play

Tor Bay 1

"Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play." - Henri Matisse (Matisse on Art)

"The capacity to relax and play renews the spirit and makes it possible for us to come to the work of writing clearer, ready for the journey."  - Bell Hooks (Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work)

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Tor Bay 2

"To enter into play is to enter into uncertainty. It involves letting go, and it involves the risk that in your looseness, in your un-self-conscious spontaneity, you may say or do something strange, something that someone could shame you for. Therein lies the risk, and therein lies our poetry."

- Matthew Burgess ("Serious Play: Odes to the Everyday," Poetry Foundation)

Tor Bay 5

"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both."
- L.P. Jacks (Education Through Recreation)

Tor Bay 4

"A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived within him and who he will miss terribly."  - Pablo Neruda (I Confess I Have Lived)

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"So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us."   - Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Reverie)

Tor Bay 10

"I believe that half the trouble in the world comes from people asking 'What have I achieved?' rather than 'What have I enjoyed?' I've been writing about a subject I love as long as I can remember -- horses and the people associated with them, anyplace, anywhere, anytime. I couldn't be happier knowing that young people are reading my books. But even more important to me is that I've enjoyed so much the writing of them."   - Walter Farley (author of The Black Stallion)

Tor Bay 9

"We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” -  Karl Groos (The Play of Animals)

Tor Bay 11

Photographs above: Howard, Victoria, Tilly and I on a dog-friendly beach near Paignton, south Devon, last week.
The L.P. Jacks quote above is often misattributed to François Auguste René Chateaubriand, and the Karl Goos quote to George Bernard Shaw.

Sonatas, storms, and stories

Wild Hemlock by Jessie M. King

From "The Fantastic Imagination" by George Macdonald (1824-1905), author of  The Princess and Curdie, At the Back of the North Wind, The Light Princess, etc., discussing the nature and value of fairy tales and fantasy:

"A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, [for example], is so far from being a work of art that it needs This is a horse written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it does not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

"But indeed, your children are not likely to trouble you about meaning. They will find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

Sleeping Beauty by John Duncan

"A fairy tale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness of the spirit. An allegory must be Mastery or Moorditch. A fairy tale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself at all sides, sips at every flower, and spoils not one.

A detail from a mural by Phoebe Traquair

"The true fairy tale, to my mind, is like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with a more or less contenting conciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to a definite idea would be the result? Little enough -- and that little more than needful."

In the Garden of Peace by Dorothy Carleton Smyth

Bows, Beads and Birds by Frances MacDonald MacNair

" A fairy tale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, wither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one the cloudy rendezvous is a Summer Time by Annie Frenchwild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their center pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.

"I will go farther -- The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is -- not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things through for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she does rouses  the something deeper than understanding -- the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion, and not after many fashions?

"Nature is mood-engendering, thought provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairy tale to be."

Sleeping Beauty by Ann Macbeth

Sleeping Beauty (embroidered panel) by Ann Macbeth

The author and artists selected for this post all come from Scotland -- in honor of today's historic referendum on the question of Scottish Independence.

The artists above were part of the great Scottish Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century: Jessie M. King (1875-1949), John Duncan (1866-1945), Phoebe Traquair (1853-1936),  Dorothy Carleton Smyth (1880-1933, sister of fellow-artist Olive Carleton Smyth), Frances MacDonald MacNair (1873-1921, sister of fellow-artist Margaret MacDonald Mackintoch), Annie French (1872-1965), Ann Macbeth (1875-1948), and Katherine Cameron (1874-1965). I recommend the book Glasgow Girls: Women in Art & Design 1880-1920, edited by Jude Burkhauser (Cannongate, 1990).

The Lily Maid of Astolat by Katherine Cameron